Much like E.T. the alien himself waddling unbeknownst past Mary, the matriarch of a suburban home, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial similarly seems to be a movie that seems to maintain a very low profile in my day-to-day psyche. And yet every time I see this movie again I am reminded that like its titular alien it is a truly magical, miraculous, and transcendent film that manages to deepen my childlike wonder the older I get.
The movie’s premise is simple: What if a human and an alien from another planet met each other, and instead of trying to tear each other to pieces simply chose to become friends? It is great wisdom that Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison were able to see that the only way to make that premise remotely believable was to make both the human and the alien children. This is because only children seem to have the innate curiosity to look past their fears and suspicions. It is children who are more immune to the prejudices and hatreds that afflict us as adults. And it is children who are most able to feel wonder.
E.T. begins with a primal fear of childhood, when E.T. becomes separated from his parent aliens and they are forced to abandon him when FBI agents converge on their location. The fact that he slowly begins to die the longer he is separated from his parents is as heartbreakingly poignant a metaphor for the relationship between parents and their children as has ever been put on screen. And his desperate desire to return to the safety of home is something every child who has ever been lost knows intimately.
Similarly suffering is Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his family. His mother Mary (Dee Wallace) is recently separated and his dad is already apparently enjoying life – he is unreachable because he is in Mexico (which in a past life he apparently hated) with Sharon. His older brother Mike (Peter Coyote) has suddenly had to graduate to being the man of the house, a role he clearly neither wants nor is prepared for. Only his youngest sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) seems impervious to this momentous change which is both a saving grace and a little heartbreaking.
It is this slightly broken but altogether lovable nuclear family that forms the core of this movie, and I believe it is also the source of the movie’s genius. Spielberg approaches the family dynamics present in this film so naturalistically that it is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever had parents and siblings. When Mike and Elliot rib each other, it doesn’t come across as a staged Hollywood relationship but rather makes complete sense; we can see that hiding underneath the barbs they throw with another is a deep love for one another. Later on when Elliot calls his brother an infantile name at the dinner table, Mary does her absolute best to stifle a laugh even while she tries to chastise her son. It is a small moment, but it rings true to any parent who has heard their child swear or seen them misbehave and struggled not to guffaw at their behaviour. Meanwhile Gertie is your typical toddler who lives in a world all of her own imagination; she makes-believe and has conversations with herself completely unbeknownst to her older brothers or mother. Their home is also a disorderly mess that is far from the seemingly interior decorated homes of many a TV and movie house, but is also just like any of our homes when our guests (or adult parents) aren’t visiting. In these small ways Spielberg paints a portrait of a family that is so plainly ordinary that you and I could probably slip into one or more of their roles with little or no effort.
The down-to-earth and almost boring normalcy of this suburban family is critical to the movie’s success because it only makes the magical parts of the movie seem all the more magical. When Elliot and E.T. finally meet it is more than just a boy bumping into an alien; it is the miraculous breaking into a very ordinary world. (The lack of this normalcy in the real world may be what makes his latest effort Ready Player One feel slightly less magical.)
Elliot and E.T.’s initial meeting is also significant because it confirms for us that this will be their story – and not to be told by adults. After the initial shock of discovering one another, the two almost instantly become companions and this isn’t odd because this is simply what children do. Their curiosity about one another binds them closer than Elliot has with the world he lives in. In fact apart from his mother, almost all of the adults in this story remain unseen faces hidden behind light and shadow; the world of adults is more alien to him and his siblings than his extra-terrestrial friend.
It is fitting that E.T. comes to meet Elliot and his siblings first because this movie is primarily about wonder and miracles – things that adults have in short supply. When E.T. brings back flowers to life or heals a wound Elliot has or makes bicycles fly, Elliot doesn’t have a need to quantify or explain what is going on. Instead he stands in awe and wonder, he whoops with exhilaration, and he grins with absolute glee. The older I get, the more I find these scenes, and not the actual sad moments in this film, that brings tears to my eyes. The joy Elliot experiences at the sight of miracles and magic is something that increasingly eludes my jaded and cynical eyes, and yet every time I see Elliot fly again that euphoric joy returns to me. Elliot embodies the truth found in the book of Matthew where it says “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Eventually the adults do show up, and the results are predictably catastrophic. They show up to the seemingly miraculous appearance of E.T. with their instruments and machines, in hazmat suits and containment chambers, speaking in terms that they, and only they, understand so that E.T. is merely reduced to a biological anomaly. The miracle passes them by.
In watching the movie again, it quickly becomes obvious that the third act of the movie – while perhaps the most thrilling and the part my childhood remembers the most – is slightly out of place. It is perhaps the only part of the movie where Spielberg suddenly doubts that he has made a children’s story that children will watch and relate to and thus throws together a thrilling bike chase leading to an iconic conclusion. Again there is nothing theoretically wrong with the sudden burst of energy that highlights this third act and the whole scene is a showcase of Spielberg’s precise ability to shoot an action scene. But when compared to the wondrous storytelling that has gone on before, it just seems a little conventional.
Still this is but a minor complaint in what is nothing short of a masterpiece. I still haven’t had time to talk about the exemplary animatronic work which from the very first moment makes us believe that E.T. could be real and puts many a modern CGI-created creature to shame. John William’s score meanwhile stands out as one of his best in a career of iconic movie scores. Just about everything from the performances to the production values of this film coalesces to create a near-perfect movie. It is a shining example that Steven Spielberg belongs in the conversation of the best filmmakers ever. But more importantly, it is a beautiful reminder to not say goodbye to the joy of childlike wonder. It is a reminder that – to paraphrase the movie’s most famous line – magic and miracles will be right here, waiting for our jaded selves to find it again.
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